Perhaps the funniest thing about the upcoming film version of The Hobbit is
the fact that everybody knows it’s going to be a huge blockbuster
success. It’s just more or less obvious that the pending duology will
be major hits at the box office and earn rivers of cash. And maybe,
just maybe, even a couple of Oscars.

But if you were to go back in time just ten years and say that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, directed by the guy who brought us the little-seen splatter film Dead Alive and the little-seen box office bomb The Frighteners,
would go on to be one of the biggest money earners in history and win a
record-tying eleven Oscars… well, even the innocent young geeks on
the CHUD message boards would have laughed at you.

I’ve been rewatching The Lord of the Rings films
recently; it turns out my girlfriend hadn’t seen them and that made me
realize I hadn’t revisited them in years – since the Extended Edition
of Return of the King hit,
in fact. That was just five years ago, but it feels like a lifetime in
cinema terms. Since then Peter Jackson disappointed many of us with a
bloated King Kong and has been at work with a very expensive version of The Lovely Bones. The Hobbit has
been stewing for a long time, in a couple of different iterations and
with pre-production only just getting fully underway now. And the
cinematic landscape feels like it’s changed in so many ways, as though
we’ve all dropped a couple of IQ points.

And indeed, the idea of a trilogy like The Lord of the Rings not
only being a success but a blockbuster of historic proportions seems
impossible today. But the truth is that this series was always a
ridiculous proposition, and that it probably should go down in history as the most unlikely cinematic success story ever.

Right from the start the entire project should have been doomed:
straight sword and sorcery fantasy has never been a big draw for
crowds. While smaller films have done good business with high fantasy
playing to B-movie houses, the genre seems to have never hit with the
masses. The film that was the previous highest grossing high fantasy
success, Willow, wasn’t much of a success at all, never launching the
franchise that George Lucas and Ron Howard would have liked.

The popularity of Tolkiens’s books certainly made the films a not
completely ludicrous proposition; 100 million copies have been sold,
and The Lord of the Rings has been estimated as one of
the most read books in America today. But book popularity doesn’t
always cross over to movie popularity, especially when it comes to a
series as niche as Tolkien’s dense and wordy tale of the War of the

Watching The Lord of the Rings again I was struck by just
how faithful Jackson was the to spirit of the world Tolkien created,
even if he deviated enough to infuriate the diehards. It’s hard to
imagine that the crowds who made Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen a
huge hit this summer sat in theaters five years ago and listened to
three hours of people rambling on in very formal, semi-poetic English,
but the numbers indicate a very good number of them must have.

We live in a cinematic world where everything must be overexplained and
overmythologized; Batman can’t just have a Batsuit, we have to spend
time learning why he has it, what it’s made of, how he paid for it, and
who helped him make it. The Lord of the Rings goes
almost the opposite direction; moviegoers who didn’t have the books in
hand stood the serious chance of being overwhelmed by the constant
parade of names, places, beasts and races. Jackson smartly makes sure
that the onscreen action is always clear – in the lead up to the battle
of Helms Deep in The Two Towers he has at least three
different montages or flashbacks explaining who is where and why – but
the background material is just there. No one stops and gives a big
speech about just what a Balrog is, for instance.

Part of the faithfulness he brought includes playing everything with an
incredibly straight face. All of this stuff is completely silly, and
much of what isn’t silly is preposterous. There is some comedic relief
– again, more than the diehards would have liked – but the three films
take themselves seriously in a way that few blockbusters do. While a
movie like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen takes itself seriously in an overwrought way, The Lord of the Rings takes
itself seriously in a very earnest way. Michael Bay thinks he’s telling
a Campbellian uberstory where the characters are pawns to be shifted
around but Jackson takes the material seriously on the character level
– this stuff matters to us because it matters to these characters, not
because what is happening fulfills a myth story arc.

And that’s really where I find myself surprised that these films
connected. The whole thing stands right on the precipice of self-parody
– you could call the joke version Lord of the Endless Helicopter Shots – and yet somehow the hardened, ADD suffering cynical audiences didn’t erupt in laughter. They erupted in tears and cheers.

There’s something to be said about the trilogy’s timing. Had The Lord of the Rings hit around the time of The Phantom Menace and The Matrix I don’t think it would have went over as well. If it had hit a few years later, in the time of the first Transformers, I also think it would have stumbled. But The Fellowship of the Ring came
out right after 9/11, and the film’s thematic concepts of a decent way
of life being threatened by a huge, shadowy threat rang very true. I
spent New Year’s Eve of 2001/2002 at a late night screening of The Fellowship of the Ring with
my then-girlfriend, and I remember sitting in that theater wondering if
at midnight the next wave of Al Qaeda madness would come (yeah, yeah,
laugh if you want but the months after 9/11 were fucking weird for
those of us in New York City). That night Gandalf’s response to Frodo’s
wish that the ring had never been found – ‘So do all who live to see
such times. But that is not for them to
decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given
to us.’ – was weighted with serious meaning that Peter Jackson hadn’t
intended and that Tolkien had intended for another war in another
decade. The unjust invasion of Iraq was still some time away and the
operations in Afghanistan carried the feeling of righteousness.

The Lord of the Rings came out at that moment when irony
was dialed down a little bit (despite the claims at the time it never
died) and earnestness wasn’t just ok, it was embraced. Most of our
modern action heroes are the unwilling sort, the guy who is called to
battle despite the fact that he would rather stay home. The hobbits of The Lord of the Rings were
the unlikely sort, but very willing. Each of them made a choice to step
into a larger world and to put their lives on the line for justice;
Tolkien doesn’t spend any time with bullshit ‘Refusing the Call’
nonsense that litters too many of our films aimed at complacent mall
audiences. These hobbits would certainly have preferred to stay home
and toke up on pipeweed, but they never hesitated to stand up and risk
themselves in fundamental ways to protect their home, their beliefs and
their friends. You’d get laughed out of the room if you pitched Michael
Bay on the idea of having Sam Witwicky simply opt to be a warrior
against the Decepticons. Even Captain Kirk had to be talked into taking
up the reins of duty (although Star Trek reflects an
Obama-era return to a sense of earnestness, one that looking at our
president’s current track record will likely be very short lived).

The thing that a revisit of The Lord of the Rings gave me
was a sense of optimism about movie audiences. It’s too easy to despair
when empty meaningless blockbusters earn billions while smart, small
movies languish in obscurity, but Peter Jackson proved that mainstream
audiences wouldn’t just go for something rich and dense and thoughtful
and emotional and meaningful, they would rabidly eat it up. While
Jackson offered up spectacular battle scenes and incredible vistas, he
didn’t turn Tolkien’s books into action films; you have to sit through
lots of talking and walking and gorgeous shots of landscapes to get to
moments where orcs get their heads cut off. With one exception* Jackson
and his team didn’t need to introduce made up conflict in the
relationships between the characters. They loved each other – very
expressively, I might add – and they fought bravely and sacrificed
completely for each other.

Where it made me despair a little, to be honest, was in the realization
that no one has yet topped Gollum as a CGI character. At the time of
the release of The Two Towers I stumped for Andy Serkis
to get an Oscar nomination for his amazing performance (no, I didn’t
think I had influence. You just have to speak up sometimes), and I
don’t believe I’ve seen another CGI performance since that deserves the
same kind of consideration. Gollum still looks incredible, but you can
see the seams in the computer rendering… at least until Serkis’
performance takes over and you stop caring. I was more fooled by the
physical realism of Davey Jones in the latter Pirates of the Caribbean movies,
but I have never been more fooled by the humanity and emotional realism
of a computer assisted performance. The technology has improved, but it
seems like no one else has really done anything that noteworthy with it.

When Return of the King racked up an impressive eleven
Oscars there was a sense that it was winning for the entire trilogy,
and that the Academy was rewarding Jackson et al for their achievement
in bringing a previously unfilmable world to life. But the real
achievement wasn’t in filming  The Lord of the Rings, it was in making The Lord of the Rings a
movie that worked for mainstream audiences without every seriously
compromising what made it great and beloved in the first place.

*Frodo turning on Sam in The Return of the King